by Susan Hamilton & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & ast week, when Chief U.S. District Court Judge Robert Whaley issued his ruling on trail-specific bans on snowmobiling around Priest Lake, everyone involved in the lawsuit was shocked. Rather than adopting the joint proposal from environmental and snowmobiling groups, Whaley went with the less stringent Forest Service proposal.
Whaley said that the joint proposal from environmentalists and snowmobilers "appears to be the product of difficult negotiations." He found that the Forest Service proposal "best encompasses the goals and protections of the Endangered Species Act and is the most narrowly tailored in scope to achieve them."
Snowmobile enthusiasts rejoiced at Whaley's ruling, which was unexpected after last year's ban on trail grooming in the northwest corner above Priest Lake and Whaley's ban of snowmobiling in that same area this fall in order to protect endangered caribou in the region.
"We are thrilled with this outcome," says Craig Hill, co-owner of Hill's Resort and a representative for some of the snowmobiling groups. "It provides for significant and unique riding opportunities for the upcoming winter season. While we entered our joint proposal in good faith and in the best interests of the snowmobiling public, we obviously prefer the Forest Service's proposal and are encouraged by the court's latest analysis."
The most recent court order allows snowmobile trail grooming on many popular routes, including the trail linking the east and west sides of Priest Lake, the Hughes Meadows trail and the Trapper Burn area adjacent to the State of Idaho lands north of Priest Lake. Off-designated routes are closed, which will be detailed on new, local trail maps.
But the ruling didn't sit well with wildlife advocates, who originally brought the lawsuit that challenged federal agency analysis of snowmobile impacts on endangered caribou. The herd that all the fuss is about numbers 35 animals and is located primarily in Canada, with a few caribou wandering into North Idaho and northeast Washington.
"This is the most bizarre thing I've ever seen," says Mark Sprengle, executive director of the Selkirk Conservation Alliance of Priest River. "Essentially, the whole caribou recovery area is opened up now."
The Forest Service counters that it's following guidelines offered by state and federal caribou experts.
"Our proposal is based on the biology of the caribou," says Dave O'Brien, spokesman for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests. "It restricts or closes snowmobile riding in 89 percent of Forest Service caribou recovery area. The agreement will protect 99 percent of the high-quality, late-winter habitat used by caribou during calving season."
Whaley's latest order will remain in place until the Idaho Panhandle National Forest develops a winter recreation plan, a process that could take a year or more.